me on rock

Today was one of the holiest days I’ve had in a long while, and I’m not sure why, except right now, I am keenly aware of the fact that I am transitioning from a phase of my life that began five years ago, when I started to live on the road, intending to find myself—save myself—come hell or high water.  When I began to travel full time, I was desperate.  I was in a place where I knew, really knew, that if I didn’t get my shit together, I was going to die.  I was drinking way too much, eating all the wrong things, punishing my body in any way I could muster, and giving myself away a piece at a time to anyone who asked for a chunk of me, whether they deserved it or not.  I was believing lies about myself, ugly lies that had wrapped themselves like a noose around my neck and were starting to strangle me.  Living on the road was sort of chosen, sort of forced on me, as my means of healing.  And it worked.  And now, my travels are about to end. In about two weeks, I leave to live in Philadelphia for a year.  The acuity of knowing something is ending always makes it more precious.  I’m trying to write a complete memoir about the experience of finding myself while living on the road, and 60,000 words can’t really do it justice, so I’m not sure how I intend to encapsulate it in a blog post.  I guess I won’t even try.

What I will say is that what intended to be a year on the road turned into five, because I was determined to learn to live life as an act of trust, and I decided to walk through the doors that opened for me, and not force an end to my travels until it came naturally.  I knew when the time to end my travels came, I  would be emotionally, spiritually, and physically healed, and I would also be miraculously led to the place I was supposed to settle, at least for a time. These five years have been one of the greatest, most guided, most excruciating, beautiful gifts I have ever been given.  I lost everything that didn’t matter (but everything I lost felt like it mattered at the time) and found everything that ever did.  I traveled all of America and much of the world.  I looked me in the face and looked me in the face and cried and screamed and wrote and sang and prayed, and the other night, as I was meditating, I gave myself a gift, maybe the greatest gift I have ever been given.

It started when imagined how I feel about the people I love most—my children, my brother, my mother, my nieces and nephews, the great love of my life, my best friends–and how it hurts me so much when they can’t see how beautiful they are, when they believe the lies people tell about them, when they punish themselves for being what they are when what they are is miracles.  And I imagined I had a magic wand, and I could give them any gift in the world.  The gift that I would give them is the ability to see the beauty I see in them, to know the power that resides in their bones, the brilliance that lives in their minds, the awesome gift that they are to me and to the world.  And then, I imagined how I would feel if someone gave me that gift.  If someone said to me, “You are beautiful,” and I just decided to believe them without question.  And then, I imagined giving myself that gift.  I imagined letting myself believe I was beautiful and magical and miraculous and brilliant, that my sins were forgivable, and my future was wide open in front of me, and anything, anything was possible.  And I said to me, “Tawni, I love you.” And something washed over me.  Love?  I don’t know.  It felt blue (I see feelings as colors), and even though I’ve tried saying that to myself a billion times for the past five years, this time was different. I believed myself.  I was beautiful.  I realized that this was what I was looking for all those years, the ability to live in my own skin without loathing the sight of myself.  And there it was.

A few months ago, a series of wonderful things I choose to call miracles (others might call them coincidences, but I long ago stopped believing in that) led me to a beautiful year-long job teaching in Rosemont College’s MFA program, which has been one of the places I’ve fallen most deeply in love with during my sojourns.  It also led me to the most generous, beautiful friends in the world who are giving me an incredible apartment to live in for a year.  Yes, giving me.  I asked to pay.  They said no.  I’m not sure how to even express the gratitude I feel to them. (I’m not sure they’d want to be named here, but if you know me, you know who they are.)  They are such gifts to me.  They have helped me to believe again in the goodness of humanity, which—I’ll be honest–I was questioning for a while.  The road also led me to Carla Spataro, the head of Rosemont’s MFA program, who became one of my best friends and  believed in me completely and generously during some of the most difficult years of my life.  She has taken me into the literary family she creates with so much tenderness, dedication and love, and I don’t know how to express the gratitude I feel for that gift either.  I have found so many new friends in Philadelphia in the last five years, and I can barely wait to spend more time with them.

And yet.  The place the road ultimately brought me was home.  Spiritually, emotionally, and physically, I came home.  I found the me that was buried under years of life and abuse (by self and others), and I also found my way back to the beautiful mountain upon which I was raised, and the beautiful family that lives here.  After my father’s death, I sort of collapsed into my own cocoon of pain, and my family and I drifted apart, but the second worst day of my life (the first being my father’s death) happened while I was living on the road, and there was only one place I could think to run.  To the arms of my beautiful family.  It turned out we were all in transition.  And we fell in love again.  Became closer than we had ever been, which is saying something, because when I was a child, we were the most tightly knit family I’ve ever seen.  Now, we are tighter.  I’ve spent more and more time on my mountain as I’ve become healthier and healthier, because the healthier you become, the more you want to be around the people who really love you, and these people REALLY love me.  As in, they would jump in front of a bullet for me. I’ve spent more and more time at the church my daddy founded and my beloved brother now pastors, and I’ve realized that church is the core of who I am.  I’ve spent tons of time with my children too, who are the best thing that ever happened to me and moved back to New Mexico during my sojourns.  And now I’m leaving all that.  And even though I’m excited about my new life, leaving home breaks my heart.

This morning, I woke up to the sound of a second voice in my mother’s kitchen, a neighbor who attends the church my brother pastors.  I’ve known her peripherally and really liked her, but I’ve never gotten to know her well.  In an uncharacteristic act of social nicety (I’ve kinda turned into a recluse during my travels), I decided to go sit at the table with her and my mother and have coffee with them, and she said something to me that changed me.  She said, “You glow so brightly.  When you walk into a room, it physically lights up.  You can physically see God in you.”  I was stunned and moved, and I laughed and told her that a woman at Rosemont had called me the Madonna, and I’d been just as shocked, because all anyone had ever called me for most of my adult life was a whore.

But then, I realized something.  That “Tawni is a whore” shit was always a lie.  That whore thing was a label slapped on me by the first man who raped me, and driven home again and again by other abusers, but it was always a lie.  The point of this wandering was to strip away the lies and find the true me, and the true me is not a whore.  The true me shines when she walks into a room.  And I told her that I was different person now than I’d been five years ago, and then I realized how true that was.  I am not the same Tawni I was five years ago, not even close.  And then, I told her all about my travels, visions and dreams I’d not shared with anyone, experiences I keep very close to my heart, and she loved me more at the end of it all.  To speak your truth and have it be believed is one of the greatest gifts you can be given.  I wondered, after I spoke to her if her presence was a reflection of the gift I’d given myself the night before, my choice to believe I was beautiful.

After she left, I was about to shower, and my mom called me into the kitchen.  Just outside the door, a cat was killing a snake on the porch, and while I’m not much for death and dismemberment, it felt like a sign, like the end of the lies I had believed about myself.  I was the only one who could kill the snake, the lie, that was wrapped like a noose around my neck.  I was the only one who could look at me and decide I was beautiful.  I was the only one who could believe the people who said I was the Madonna, not the people who said I was the whore.  We are always, always the only true arbiters of our identities.  We are always, always the only true arbiters of our destinies.

I’ve just returned from my evening run, after which I laid on the rock I have made into an altar.  It is very close to the rock my father used to pray on, and I lay on it all night sometimes, staring at the stars, meditating, praying.  Much of my last book, So Speak the Stars, was written on that rock.  Today, I laid there listening to music, watching the clouds, and Alanis Morriset’s “Thank You” came on, and I cried. Thank you terror.  Thank you disillusionment.  No, I mean it.  Thank you.  And P.S. Thank you, rock.  Who knew a simple gray stone covered in moss could become a magic carpet that carried a girl back to her heart’s truest home?

And now, in two weeks, I’m leaving it.  I knew I would be given a place to settle down when the healing was complete, and it now waits for me in Philadelphia.  But truth be told, I’m not leaving my rock.  I carry this rock in my heart.  Always.  I carry this mountain in my heart.  Always.  I carry the daddy who told me a billion times that I was beautiful before he died, and the mother who reminded me of my beauty when I almost died myself.  I carry the big brother who shows me every day what courage is, and the children who are the greatest gifts I have ever been given.  I carry my father’s church in my bones.  I am my father’s church.  I don’t think he’d be offended to hear me say that.  I think he would say my brother and I are the greatest work of his life.  If I do light up a room when I walk into it, it is my father’s church, my mountain, my beloved ones, and yes, my God, whom I rediscovered in a whole new way during my travels, shining from my bones.

I am grateful.  I am grieving.  I am hopeful.  I am whole.


I’m about to roast my mother, so let me preface this by saying my mom is one of my favorite people in the world. In my past few years of living on the road, I’ve stayed with her more and more often, partly because I’m old and wandering constantly hurts my back, partly because when I’m “out there” speaking or teaching or reading or doing whatever I do for my career, I’m “on” and surrounded by people all the time, and it’s nice to come to my isolated mountain and be a total hermit, and partly because I adore the heck out of my family.

My mom and I have fun together. We go on long hikes and watch Netflix and eat, but only good food, because she’s a health nut. If you haven’t noticed, she has the body of the supermodel. “Hey, Tawn! Let’s watch Netflix and eat salad!” is her idea of a wild night.

My mom, looking like a very happy supermodel.

(My idea of a wild night is three bottles of wine, a shot of tequila, a vat of ice cream, and maybe some acrobats. If you haven’t noticed, I don’t have the body of a supermodel.)

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My curves, brought to me by ice cream and associates

Sometimes, she’ll mix it up and throw in some popcorn (no butter).

We are about as different as different could be. She is very organized, and she worries a lot. My room usually looks like a thrift store threw up in it.

my room
My lair, as of today.  AKA: What my poor, very organized mother has to contend with.  

I’m always like, “Eh, the house is on fire? It will work out. Pass me that ice cream, will you?” She also likes to throw things away. You know how some people do retail therapy? Well, she does whatever the opposite of that is. She gets rid of stuff to make herself feel better. It’s like a snake shedding its skin or something, only her skin is probably stuff she really needs and will miss someday.  So I guess it’s not like a snake shedding its skin.  It’s like a human shedding its skin.  (Hey, molting human.  You know that skin isn’t going to grow back, right?  There’s only blood and guts under there, no more skin.  Ok, just checking.)

I never know what the target of her obsession is going to be. A few months ago, I came home from God knows where—some other continent—as I live on the road and wander all of the time. I’d bought myself several packages of instant pudding before I left, and when I came home, I was exhausted and super excited to plop myself in front of the T.V. and eat pudding with whipped cream. (You miss crappy American food when you are in other places.) I asked her where my boxes of pudding were. She said, “Oh, I threw them away.”

I was like, “Why? Why would you throw boxes of pudding away?”

She shrugged. “They’d been there a month.”

“Mom, it’s powdered instant pudding mix. It doesn’t go bad.”

“Well, I figured no one was going to eat them, and they were cluttering up the pantry.”

“Mom, I was in Bangladesh. I couldn’t eat them. And they took up about an inch of space in the pantry. They were insignificant enough to be dwarfed by the average postage stamp.”

Sometimes, I’ll come home, and all the canned food will be gone because Mom decided to haul it all down to the local Salvation Army. She will often walk up to me with some perfectly useful item in her hand and say, “We don’t need this saucepan, do we?”

“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe not today. But you never know. Maybe someday you will want to make some sauce.” (She tosses pan into a bag and hustles out the door to take it to Goodwill, a pleased little smile on her face, as if she is accomplishing something very important.)

Sometimes, her need to get rid of things applies to whole pieces of furniture. Not furniture that no one is using, mind you. You might walk through the door one day and find out the couch is gone. About a month ago, she told me she was going to get a new bed for her guest room (where I sleep). The old bed was great, but she insisted it was time for a new one. It’s weird for her to want to bring home something new just for the heck of it, so I should have known something diabolical was going down. But I blindly trusted and stayed at her house while she went to do her volunteer work at the hospital so big, brawny men from a local charity could come and drag my bed away. I’ve been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a month now. I am starting to suspect there was never any new bed coming. She just wanted to get rid of some REALLY big. She probably stays up at night with that pleased little smile on her face, congratulating herself because she got rid of something super substantial. Meanwhile, my back descends into the eleventh circle of Dante’s hell.  (Yes, I know there were only nine.  This one is new and very, very cruel.)

One year, I was writer in residence at Rosemont College for the fall semester, so I lived on the campus in Philadelphia.

The beautiful castle I lived in while I was writer-in-residence at the wonderful Rosemont College

As Christmas drew near, I started buying presents for my family members and having them shipped to my mom’s house, where I was going to spend the holidays.  Well, Mom claims that she thought that because some of the packages had Chinese writing on them, they were evidence of people from another country trying to scam her. (I’m still not sure how the scam would work.  Hey, anonymous American woman, I’m sending you lots of brand new, free shit with Chinese writing on the package.  AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF!!!! HAHAHAHA!!!)   I came home three days before Christmas to find that Mom had donated ALL OF MY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS TO GOODWILL.  My kids got socks for Christmas that year.

My brother is the same way. Recently, he got divorced.  Some people cope with that sort of thing by descending into alcoholism or buying fancy sports cars.  Bryan coped by getting rid of everything he owned. I pet sit for him often, and every time I showed up to take care of his animals, something else was missing from the house. He got rid of the couch. Then the lazy boy. Then the coffee table. Finally, one night, I went over, and there was one lawn chair in his living room, poised across from the flat screen television on the wall. That was it. All the furniture in the room was gone.  I’m not sure why he kept the lawn chair, except maybe, since he is older than I am, his back can’t handle sitting on the floor to watch television. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Once all the furniture was gone, he started getting rid of most of his clothing.  I told him that the only thing left for him to do was start throwing out one of the shoes from each pair of shoes he owned, because who needs two flip flops anyway?

My brother looking very pleased at Christmas because he has gotten rid of so many of his worldly goods. That box next to him is a painting Of Jesus I bought him.  It now hangs next to the television in his living room, in front of the lawn chair.

And people wonder why I hoard things. It’s a coping mechanism. If I have three sauce pans, maybe Mom will find one and donate it to charity, and maybe Bryan will find the other and burn it, but damn it, I’ll still have a saucepan.

Me and Momma in Amsterdam last year.  We had the time of our lives, even though I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill me the whole time because “go with the flow” is not her idea of a solid travel itinerary.